As the dust settles after the Sustainable Packaging Summit 2023, we’re casting our eye over the highlights of this year’s event. Our 95 speakers and 650 attendees offered a range of perspectives from across the value chain and an array of global regions, bringing with them a plethora of discussion points to take into the new year.
The Summit at a glance
On the Strategy Stage, a fireside chat between our very own Tim Sykes and Virginie Helias, chief sustainability officer at Procter & Gamble, launched the event by illuminating the benefits of making sustainable solutions “irresistibly superior” for consumers and utilizing the power of their spending. Helias went on to underline the HolyGrail 2.0 initiative’s value in the pursuit of a circular economy, urging attendees to get involved.
Prevented Ocean Plastic took to the Innovation Stage to address a new approach to addressing marine plastic pollution in developing countries – as did the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, giving the audience a glimpse into its latest report a week ahead of its release. Speaking broadly about its findings, strategic design manager Mark Buckley made the case that “producing packaging is much more water-intensive than washing it for reuse.”
Under the moderation of Feliks Bezati, global circular packaging director at Mars, the controversial topic of chemical recycling was offered up to an audience poll. Although 50% of audience members considered the process essential to a circular economy, 25% asserted that its benefits are outweighed by its drawbacks.
According to CEFLEX consultant Dana Mosara, chemically recycled materials are filling gaps in the market, including food-safe recycled packaging. Carlos Ludlow-Palafox, CEO at Enval Ltd., added that pyrolysis is not a silver bullet, but argued that misconceptions must be dispelled. Rather than fuel, he explained, it can produce molecules to re-enter the supply chain.
European regulation and PPWR
One of our most popular panels united Feliks Bezati; Avery Dennison’s director for Strategy and Sustainability, Alena Maran; Packaging Europe Ambassador and VGV Corporate managing director Bruno Van Gompel; Francesca Siciliano Stevens, secretary general at EUROPEN; Sophia Chrysopoulou, EU Public Affairs and Government Relations director at The Coca-Cola Company; Tahmid Chowdhury from the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership; and Wolfgang Trunk, DG Environment, European Commission. Together they discussed the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation, and European legislation in general – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Among the key takeaways from the panel was the importance of mutual efforts and collaboration across the packaging industry and the European continent to realize the targets of the PPWR. Rather than a patchwork of nation-specific rules, the panelists called for harmonized guidelines to achieve true circularity for packaging, and for every industry player to play their part in pursuing climate neutrality by 2050.
However, concerns were raised that an overly rigid Design for Recycling Criteria would limit the industry. Stevens emphasized that the Single Market must be protected to encourage investments, develop economies of scale, and streamline the route towards circularity. In a separate panel, Maria Vera Duran, project manager at EuRIC, warned that investment and innovation could stall if recyclers cannot negotiate prices for recyclable materials.
Instead of allowing Member States to exceed the requirements laid out in the PPWR proposal, Stevens encourages the European Commission to bolster collection, sorting, and recycling across the continent, thus optimizing recycling processes and complementing design for recycling.
Discussions were not limited to Europe, however. Technical directors Fabrizio Di Gregorio from Plastics Recyclers Europe and Scott Trenor from the Association of Plastic Recyclers; Clem Ugorji, consultant at Global Plastic Action Partnership; and Steve Wong from the Asia-Pacific Sustainable Plastics Alliance were moderated by Sustainable Packaging podcast founder and host Cory Connors in a panel that incorporated perspectives from North America, Africa, and Asia.
In the US, different recycling programmes are operating independently instead of functioning in a single, consistent system. More broadly, insufficient collection and separation infrastructure, less financial motivation, a lack of recycled content markets, and resultant downcycling were listed by the speakers as ongoing issues surrounding plastics recycling.
To offset these issues, create a level playing field, and ensure the creation of long-term contracts and investments, the panels suggested that stronger regulation must be enforced.
Businesses strategies and climate
Another widely discussed panel took a deep dive into the steps industry players are taking to pursue environmental sustainability in their own practices. Equanimator director Dominic Hogg; Laura Thompson, executive committee member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition; Stora Enso’s director of Sustainability, Climate and Circularity, Maija Aho; Sarah Laidler, senior consultant at the Carbon Trust; and Mark Allen, senior sustainability director Europe at PepsiCo, took to the stage to hold the conversation.
With only six years to go until 2030, many businesses are being incentivized to look inward and improve their own operations from an environmental standpoint. Progress is being made, but the speakers called for bigger strides to be made – fearing that an individual, business-by-business approach could overlook the cumulative impact of the whole packaging industry.
The discussion concluded that businesses must choose suppliers with good carbon credentials and support them to meet targets. Decisions must be made now rather than waiting on upcoming data points, the panelists added, and decarbonization targets must be backed up with transparent strategies.
On the Innovation Stage, Vivien McEwen, senior business development analyst at the Carbon Trust, laid out a roadmap for businesses to clearly communicate their decarbonization efforts. This included making the strategy publicly available; backing up decisions and claims with scientific data sources and third-party, independent verifiers; remaining realistic and truthful with any information shared with consumers and suppliers; taking accountability for any mistakes; and communicating with industry peers to teach, learn, and take collaborative steps towards net zero.
Running in parallel with the Summit this year was the AIPIA World Congress. As suggested by Cambridge Design Partnership’s planning and innovation strategy lead, James Harmer, and senior innovation consultant Amy King in conversation with Tim Sykes, “it’s not necessarily the packaging that’s smart, but the technology around it” – and in response to consumer demand for effective and affordable packaging, differing definitions of ‘value’ across the industry, and the ever-faster transition into a more sustainable future, innovation is key.
According to research from the Royal National Institute of Blind People, nine in ten blind or partially sighted people in the UK have trouble reading on-pack text. Failing to consider visually impaired consumers in packaging design has serious implications, accessibility innovation lead Marc Powell explained, with unreadable cooking instructions restricting certain foods and inaccessible labelling forcing those with health conditions to guess what they can and cannot eat.
Technology like NaviLens is “transforming the landscape”, he suggested. Similar to a QR code, it enables consumers to scan and play back product information from their smartphones at up to four-metre distances. It is currently available on Kellogg’s cereal boxes, is being rolled out across Quorn’s meat substitute products, and is being trialled on certain multipacks of Coca-Cola Christmas cans.
Alitheon CEO Roei Ganzarski went on to highlight the value of optical AI for all consumers. If a pack can be identified through a camera lens, he explained, a viewer does not need to touch, modify, or damage it to interact with it. In Ganzarksi’s words, “I can get everything I need without having to destroy that package.”
Unilever’s digital and e-commerce director, Sarah Masters, also discussed the company’s collaboration with Zappar to develop QR code software and emphasized her stance on QR code technology, stating that “everyone should be doing this”. She raised the possibility of scaling up QR so that it becomes the norm, meaning manufacturers must opt out rather than opting in.
For another thorough exploration of progress, challenges, and visions of the future in the packaging industry, join us at the Sustainable Packaging Summit in 2024 – you can register your interest in next year’s event via this link.
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